Saturday, October 15, 2016

QCinema 2016: The Handmaiden (Opening Film)

It's time for QCinema, one of the country's rising independent film fests. Last year's lineup was quite remarkable and this year looks like it won't disappoint. But before we go into the meat of things, let's start with the festival's opening film, Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden - the first Park movie that I saw in theaters. And for the record, that was one hell of a movie.

The Handmaiden loosely adapts Sarah Waters' novel Fingersmith and changes the location to Japanese-occupied Korea. A wily pickpocket is recruited to spy on a wealthy Japanese heiress, part of an elaborate scam. However, things aren't as simple as they seem at first.

The film is divided into three sections, each revealing another hidden layer of the story. The movie and the novel diverge at the third act, but the overall product does not disappoint. The story is pretty straightforward, however, and is probably one of Park's simpler works storywise.

The film fills up to the brim with sexual tension. Park has explored sex and desire before, notably in his previous Thirst (2009), which mixes lust with survival instinct, and Stoker (2013), juxtaposing lust with perverse violence. These previous films form a trilogy of sorts with this film, where the sex is tied into twisted love, a culmination of the themes explored in his previous works. This tension explodes into a number of sex scenes that may prove controversial for some.

And given these themes of desire and love, it's intriguing that Park chose this particular period of time as the setting for his film. Korea and Japan have had an acrimonious history, with one nation subjugating the other, inflicting serious wounds that have yet to fully heal. And yet here are a couple of characters, representing both countries, in a twisted, yet strangely loving, relationship. 

There's a bit of a nationalistic streak within the movie as well, themes embodied by Park's first big film JSA (2000). Within the confines of this movie, the culture and history of oppression that wartime Japan has established, represented by the collection of erotica and artwork that the character Kouzuki has collected, is rejected, destroyed by the female leads in a thrilling scene where the 'knowledge' of the world is revealed to them and they are shown the limitless possibilities of freedom.

I give credit to Park for trying to depict female sexual liberation, though it's still through the viewpoint of a man. The female characters are merely discovering themselves and their own potential sexual freedoms with each other, while the male characters are either impotent, depraved, or both. 

Frequent contributor Ryu Seong-hie gives the world of the Handmaiden richness and depth with her masterful production design, and Chung Chung-hoon, responsible for DP work on some of Park's most iconic films, takes up lensing duties. Jo Yeong-wook is responsible for the film's soundtrack, full of strings and rousing moments, elevating the film's emotional scenes.

This Handmaiden is in my opinion Park's best film post vengeance trilogy. It is masterfully realized and takes the themes explored in his oeuvre to greater, more twisted heights.

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